FringeReview UK 2019
Directed by James Macdonald, with set and costume design by Rae Smith, lit by Neil Austin with sound design by Max Pappenheim. Rachel Brown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown are the fight directors. Nia Lynn is dialect coach with Carole Hancock on hair wigs and make-up. Till September 28th.
It’s wonderful to see this eldritch creation revived. Not least for a title seemingly straight out of H. P. Lovecraft.
Tennessee Williams’ 1961 The Night of the Iguana cusps what’s popularly seen as his decline – though several works, including the very fine 1979 A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur (revived superbly by the Coronet in 2016) still lay ahead.
The earlier play though continues the theme of characters stranded, though unlike Sweet Bird of Youth from two years earlier, the shanty-hostel kept in Mexico by Anna Gunn’s sexy Maxine Faulk anchors enough flotsam: chiefly the circling Rev. T Lawrence Shannon (Clive Owen) the man-devouring recent widow wants to hoist on board for good. Though she’s not that concerned to keep him dry.
It’s 1940. German tourists pass through loudly proclaiming ‘London’s burning’. Alcoholic Shannon’s too haunted by his shadow to be of service to Maxine Faulks. Not least because he misses her older husband Fred, dead of blood-poisoning, but partly because he dangerously goes for 17-year-olds. It’s an even edgier theme now (never mind the legal age of consent‘s generally lower in the UK), and audiences might be harder-pressed to look for the agency of grace that’s a feature of this play.
And Shannon has opportunities – in his capacity as unreliable tour guide to coach-loads of young women from the States. Faulks keeps herself satisfied with hired hands and Shannon tries to evade the ferocious, saw-voiced Judith Fellowes (a scene-stealing Finty Williams) one of whose charges, 17-year-old Charlotte Goodall (Emma Canning) precocious in all respects, threw herself into Shannon’s bed. Canning convinces as an explosively sexualised teenager, awoken to everything in the wrong man. If proved Fellowes will pursue Shannon for statutory rape. No way back to the States then.
It’s at this point that a most unlikely rival for Shannon’s affections arrives. Lia Williams’ spinster Hannah Jelkes, an itinerant water-colourist who sells her works with armoured gentility. She accompanies her 97-year-old minor poet grandfather, Julian Glover’s impressive totter of the poet Jonathan Coffin, known as Nonno. And has done since 1910 when her parents died. His own muse seemingly died about ten years later. But there’s a poem in his head.
Directed by James Macdonald, The Night of the Iguana features a magnificent ramshackle set and costume design by Rae Smith, featuring a horseshoe of creaky tin huts around a miniature courtyard and a stairwell downstage disappearing underneath, often used. Effects are replete with rain and thunderstorm, lightning and other darkness lit by Neil Austin with sound design (thunder, iguana, music) by Max Pappenheim. Rachel Brown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown fight-direct pursuits and scuffles. Nia Lynn’s the dialect coach for a spectrum of rasps, with Carole Hancock on hair wigs and make-up.
Lia Williams’ Jelkes has the best dialogue, always arrow-straight out of apparent gentility, she has the drop on raging Shannon, and others – and knows when to back off, for instance from Faulk, knowing to whom Shannon belongs despite himself.
Williams relishes the edge in Jelkes’ voice, the mix of vulnerable grandchild and natural survivor who’s never known love from anyone less than 60 years her senior. She breathes the play’s residual wisdom with intimate confidings to Shannon. Her relation of peripheral amorous encounters are heartbreaking, laughable and infinitely touching.
The problem lies in Shannon. Like Jelkes there’s much harping on respect, and being a gentleman; indeed Jelkes credits him with this in the teeth of others. It’s a bit like a re-run of Blanche Dubois, also fumed in alcohol with a splash of her delusion. It’s a southern thing and doesn’t quite translate, except as a misplaced assertion of dignity in the wrong places.
Owen’s performance is explosive, a blistering scena of self-loathing at several turns. The dramatist though has loaded him with a cocktail to hate himself for, which shaken don’t quite cohere; not enough to make us love him. Slapping girls once he’s had sex with them might rate as an unpleasant tick, a dismissal in 1961, though it shouldn’t. Now we think differently.
Though autobiographically-charged this play doesn’t transpose the dramatist’s experience, but the emotion of it into radically different characters. Williams must have known of the whisky-priest in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, dating curiously from 1940; you feel he’s trying to render him a happy ending.
Shannon’s no natural brute, doesn’t seem even a regular commitment-phobic. But though we might believe in Jelkes’ operation of grace, it’s difficult to see quite why Shannon’s obsessed with it. Recovering alcoholism masks a nest of faux-motives, and none of his generous monologues pluck at the heart of them.
We pity his cornering and humiliation as rival tour operator Ian Drysdale’s Jack Latta has decent Hank (Faz Singhateh) yank the coach keys from Shannon, so Fellowes and her charges can exit. One wonders, though, whether Jelkes and Faulk aren’t too good for him. Jelkes understands Shannon’s soul like no other; Faulk can map and possess every other inch of the man.
There is though enough grace in Jelkes’ friendship to bring closure: pointing Shannon in the right direction, in a release for Nonno completing his poem, and for herself. The ending, however neat, is in itself satisfying, with a lingering bittersweet sense that so stars so perfectly in parallel can never meet.
There’s good ensemble work from the two truculent employee-lovers, Daniel Chaves’ Pedro and Manuel Pacific’s Pancho. And from the German quartet with their insensate cries of ‘horsey, horsey’: Alasdair Baker’s Herr Fahrenkopf, his Frau Penelope Woodman, Karin Carlson’s lively Hilda, and Timothy Blore’s Wolfgang.
The iguana? It’s a giant lizard captured for meat. Jelkes in charging Shannon to cut it free looses a slithery symbolism that wriggles out of its lead-strings. Whilst Williams can inhabit Jelkes with a shivery sense of how to wither in tranquility, Owen lives Shannon’s physicality and tries to shrug inside that. He brings him alive as few can, though even he’s not given quite enough to work on.
Do we need to live more with this work so its strangeness settles? Either way, it’s more nearly a masterpiece than you’d think, and proves its life in howling its own world.